Veterans have a greater chance of successfully transitioning into civilian life thanks to world-first research.
After completing two adrenalin-charged tours of Afghanistan and East Timor, Tim Thomas swapped the frontline for a quieter existence running his own coffee shop.
But the transition back to civilian life has not been easy for the former Australian special forces commando.
“I had it in my head that I would die over there, so when I didn’t and I came home I thought ‘what am I going to do now?’ I had a mission focus … and now the hardest thing I’ve got to do is decide when I’m having lunch,” the proud father of two said.
“I had no formal qualifications and I was used to high stimuli.
“I wasn’t coping well — I kept having problems with workmates and had a lot of family drama.
“There was a lot of pain, a lot of loneliness and I thought about suicide.”
He is not alone.
Previously published research from the Department of Defence and Department of Veterans Affairs found almost half of those transitioning would have a diagnosable mental health condition within the first five years following discharge.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report found that between 2001 and 2015, there were 325 suicides among current and former Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel.
Of these, 51 per cent (166) were ex-serving at the time of their death — a rate 14 per cent higher than for men in the general population.
“We are good at turning people into soldiers, but not so great at putting them back into the community,” Mr Thomas said.
To better understand the challenges, RSL Queensland funded one of the world’s largest qualitative research projects as part of a $14 million commitment to veterans’ mental health.
The five-year study by the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation (GMRF) aimed to understand why some veterans transitioned to civilian life easily while others struggled, and to use this knowledge to develop methods to support veterans more effectively.
It has resulted in the development of a world-first online tool called the M-CARM — Military-Civilian Adjustment and Reintegration Measure — a self-reporting questionnaire that measures a variety of factors associated with successful adjustment to civilian life.
GMRF associate director of mental health research and principal researcher Madeline Romaniuk said questions about purpose and connection outside the military, resentment or regret about military service, and attitudes to seek help for health difficulties are among the topics covered.
The possible retention of problematic military habits and adaptability to change are also measured in the survey.
“For some, the journey from military service to civilian life can be a daunting prospect,” Dr Romaniuk said.
“‘Civvy Street’ may seem at odds with the culture and familiar structure of Defence and can leave some veterans feeling a very real sense of loss — more than just a job — they lose their tribe, their purpose and their identity all at once.
“The psychological toll this takes can be devastating.”
Struggling with transition and change is not unusual and impacts on people in different ways.
GMRF chief executive officer Miriam Dwyer said the tool would identify whether there was any particular issues that someone needed help with or whether the veteran was “good to go”.
“They [veterans] can print out their profile, they can discuss it with their friends and family, or equally if they’re struggling with depression and anxiety, they can work on these cultural factors with their healthcare providers,” Ms Dwyer said.
“By being proactive about addressing some of these issues, we will see some of those tragic figures around suicide improve.”
The mental health of veterans is a problem across the globe and has not been well researched.
“There has never been developed a robust scientific tool that would actually measure this, so this is a world-first,” Ms Dwyer said.
“We have already had international interest in the M-CARM tool from governments supporting veterans returning home, demonstrating the need for such a tool on the international stage,” Ms Dwyer said.
Mr Thomas took part in the study and welcomed the development of the tool.
“We haven’t been able to measure the success or failure of the transition process until now,” Mr Thomas said.
Another ADF veteran Wes ‘H’ Hennessy also struggled with the transition.
He joined the ADF at 17 and quickly rose up through the ranks and was with the special forces in East Timor.
The former Special Operations commando and counter-terrorism expert said it was not like leaving a regular job.
“I did 24 years’ service — I was decorated three times, I did more than 10 combat deployments, and when I put my discharge in, it was after a 13-month deployment and I didn’t get one [official] phone call.
“This is an extremely dangerous period where a lot of people get lost along the way.”
Mr Hennessy welcomes any additional help, but warns it is only a starting point.
“You’ve got four to five-month waiting lists to see psychologists or psychiatrists and they’re through the gazetted lists that the Department of Veteran Affairs provides,” he said.
Mr Hennessy said there needed to be a greater understanding and “a more proactive, sincere and caring approach to people leaving the ADF”.
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